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  • Rachel Egoian

Photography and Colonialism in the Early 19th Century Philippines - Art or Documentation?

In the Filipino culture, art and photography lack the support from our communities in which we place our focus towards health and business as careers. On the contrary, we are in dire need of careers that hold the values of creativity and critical thought to encourage new generations to be able to think freely and open-minded especially during a time of understanding serious global, political, and social issues of today.

Photography as an art form provides a diverse lens of exploring reality. Its skillful ability of perception challenges us to unpack the truths of our long forgotten history and culture that society sometimes neglects or overshadows from the public eye. However, as referenced from academic journal, Displaying Filipinos: Photography and Colonialism in the Early 19th Century Philippines, authenticity holds a key element of maintaining realism with photography that reinforces authority and versatility, allowing the viewer to closely examine the perception of the image as well as taking note of the production of the image. Authority’s influence with an artist is something to consider in which the viewer might question the artist’s intention or message of the photograph.

In addition, versatility questions its purpose: should photography be viewed as art or should it purely be document and gain knowledge of something in that specific image? We see many examples of photography working for both purposes, challenging and shifting the way we perceive the world, whether it be in media or art.

The Center of Art and Thought, a web-based non-profit organization that focus on the Filipino experience, has provided an online exhibition of stereographic images and content called “Empire’s Eyes: Colonial Stereographs of the Philippines.” The curated exhibition is open to the public as the organization’s mission statement insists on providing a space through the resources of digital and new technological media that educate the public viewer, thus creating an open discussion of art and critical thought.

As the website freely allows the viewer to navigate the online exhibition, the format reinforces an educational outlook by providing criticisms on the topics of photography and colonialism in the Philippines. At first the viewer might feel overwhelmed or unsure how to feel and experience viewing the stereographs and criticisms. A disconnection may even be part of the experience in which you find yourself just the observer, taking in the physical elements of the image; thus, changing the purpose of the photograph and the understanding that the artist may not have an intention or message for the viewer. The feeling of disconnect is acceptable, which forms a new experience of vulnerability and reflection. Although, being paired with the criticisms, it helps to transition a kind of experience that moves the viewer towards a perspective that reflects on the anxieties and trauma experienced by Filipinos who were exposed to the prolonged years of colonialism. Reflecting on the stereographic images shares an alarming realization that history lacks to acknowledge the negative effects of colonialism or imperialism in which the photographs project the authenticity of the harsh realities of the people in the Philippines, conveying the underlying truths through observation.

America finds itself guilty to preserve authentic or diverse perspectives of history. Growing up as a Filipino American woman, I barely know the history of the Philippines and its involvement with America. In my history textbooks, there were only a couple small paragraphs dedicated about the Spanish American War and the Treaty of Paris or the Philippine-American War. That is not the case for the exhibition, “Empire’s Eyes: Colonial Stereographs of the Philippines.” As I look through the stereographs, the once vulnerable and disconnection that I had slowly resides in a connection of understanding my Filipino culture and identity. I can look at the photographs as a source of perceiving the perspective of Filipino culture and everyday life in the Philippines, realizing that even through challenges of political and social persecutions, the people in the images reveal this sense of family and community. Therefore, breaking down the negative stereotypes of otherness and exoticism of the Philippines and reinforcing a powerful message of the value of unity and togetherness.

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Rachel Egoian - Pleasant Hill, CA


Originally from the Bay Area and a graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz in Literature and Education, Rachel has a profound interest in Asian American literature and communities. In addition, she is a recent graduate student at San Francisco State University for the English Literature Master’s program. Coming from a mixed ethnic background as an Armenian, Irish and Filipina, she values the importance of culture and self-identity. Through the foundations of literary criticism, she encourages and stresses the need for diversity in literature.

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